By Johan Steyn, 15 November 2022
“We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” Looking down from on high, in god-like control, the creator of a large media corporation speaks about his creation. Adopted by the corporation at birth, inhabiting the largest television set in the world, Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey) is blissfully unaware that he has been the focus of the show all of his life.
Played by Ed Harris, Christof is known as “the creator”. Every waking and sleeping moment of Truman is recorded and broadcast to a global audience. Everything and everyone around him is fake. Premiering in 1998, The Truman Show seemed absurd. However, when a host of reality television shows started filling our living rooms, we all became voyeuristic bystanders, our empty existence filled with the chaotic lives of those we like to watch.
These days we are all unknowingly starring in a Truman show. We are no longer just the watchers of others but we are being watched all the time. Modern technology has ushered in an era of perpetual surveillance. Our mobile phones document all our movements and record our conversations, and the applications we use reveal our interests and deepest desires.
After millennia of ignorance, where only the elite had access to information, the modern era gave us all the ability to wake from our slumber of not knowing, as we can access all the information ever created by humankind with the click of a button on our smartphones. Technology brought us together, as our media became “social” and we would never be alone again.
Sadly, social media became a force for dissension, further fragmenting our brittle societal coherence. We are bombarded with fake news amplifying our already dangerous biases. The internet has eroded our faith in institutions as the primary source of truth.
The late astrophysicist, astronomer and best-selling author Carl Sagan wrote about the time we live in these days. Published 27 years ago, in his book The Demon-Haunted World, we read, “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or my grandchildren’s time — when the US is a service and information economy ... when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no-one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues.
“The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites ... lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.”
In an era of Trumpism and Brexit, the Oxford dictionary chose “posttruth” as the word of the year in 2016. We no longer know what to believe or who to trust, and we have all become self-proclaimed experts in our own right.
Christof is told that Truman is not free, he is a prisoner. The creator responds, “He could leave at any time. If his was more than just a vague ambition, if he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there’s no way we could prevent him. I think what distresses you ... is that ultimately Truman prefers his cell.”
Sagan was right to call our era a celebration of ignorance. As technology perpetuates our daily lives, we are imprisoned, and unlike Truman, we will never be able to escape.
• Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow at Stellenbosch University and founder of AIforBusiness.net